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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

27 November 2020

Malcolm Guite finds that winter is a good time to go for a walk in the dark and soak in folk music

AS THE nights have drawn in, I’ve been spending more time listening to music; and, in particular, I have been soaking myself in folk music. Folk is always good for the winter fireside, but I also take the haunting echoes of those songs out with me on my dark winter walks. I cut my teeth on the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, but my daughter has introduced me to a younger generation of folk musicians, including the incomparable Kate Rusby; and it is her beautiful Yorkshire voice, at once ethereal and warm, which has been haunting me of late.

Paradoxically, it’s not when I’m actually listening to the record in the warmth, but when I’m outdoors walking, that the music comes to me most vividly and plays in my mind. Perhaps that is because folk song is itself so completely soaked and versed in the English countryside. Climbing Rivey Hill in the last of the low winter sun, with the wind wuthering in the woods, the ravens crying in the fields, and my good greyhounds foraging in front of me, I could hear Kate singing “The Witch of the Westmorland” and almost imagine that I was the wounded knight in that ballad as he comes to the mere to seek the lady of the lake:

. . . “Lie down, you brindled hound, and rest ye, my good grey hawk,

And thee, my steed, may graze thy fill, for I must dismount and walk.

“But come when you hear my horn, and answer swift the call;
For I fear when the sun will rise this morn, ye will serve me best of all.”

I don’t have the horse and hawk to go with the hounds, but I always feel that George and Zara would be as much at home in a broadsheet ballad or a Renaissance woodcut as they are on my study hearthrug.

Of course, English folk is not all tales of encounter with the fey things of Elfland, moving as those are; for another strand in the tradition is, naturally, the immemorial drinking song, and I’ve had a few of those going round in my head as well. I am, happily, more likely to have a real-life encounter with the drink they celebrate than with the centaur-form of the Witch of the Westmorland.

Again, it’s been Kate’s voice I hear in my head, this time singing “Philosophers, Poets and Kings”, which seems to be a ballad ancestor of Monty Python’s “Bruces’ Philosophers Song”, with verses like this one:

Copernicus had wine in his veins
Oh, it made his philosophy real
Then fancied the world, just like his brains
Turned round like a chariot wheel.

Of course, as you hear the song rather than see the lyrics, you’re free to choose whether the wine made his philosophy real — or, rather, made it reel.

I still had its jaunty chorus reeling round in my head when I came home from my winter walk and back into the warm house:

Oh, for good wine

Oh, for the pleasure it brings
If it wasn’t for wine, we couldn’t sing
Of philosophers, poets and kings.

Notwithstanding the title, all the wine-lovers in that song are philosophers; she mentions no poets at all. Well, I thought, as I warmed a pan of mulled wine, if she wants some new poet verses, I could mention one or two names. . .

A Heaven in Ordinary: A Poet’s Corner collection 
by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-78622-262-2.

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